Friday, May 8, 2015

The SNP may Offer an Environmental Silver Lining in the UK Conservative Election Win

The only bright spot for the environment and climate change in the 2015 UK election is the SNP's sweep of Scotland. David Cameron and his center right Conservative party have won a majority government and this does not bode well for climate action in the UK. Of all the major parties the Conservatives are the least likely to advance environmental and climate issues, this includes movement towards zero emissions and renewable energy.

The Conservatives ran on a platform that focused on economic stewardship and fear mongering about the dangers of electing their competitors. They specifically derided the economic competence of the Labour Party under ED Miliband. It should be noted that as part of the the Labour Party's strategy to position themselves as economically capable they did not take ambitious stands on climate and environmental issues.

Prior to the election, Green Party in England and Wales leader Natalie Bennett urged voters to support her party to "send a message" on climate change. "By voting Green, you've got a chance to show whoever the next prime minister is just how much the fight against climate change matters to you," Bennett said. "You've got a chance to send a message, loud and clear, to whoever is negotiating on your behalf [in international climate talks] in Paris." It would appear that given the fact that the Green party did not add one seat to their total, her message did not resonate with voters. Energy, climate, flooding, air and water were some of the election issues that failed to gain traction at the ballot box with the majority of UK voters.

As we have seen in conservative election victories in Canada, Australia, and the US midterms, economic concerns appear to trump climate and environmental action. People in the UK like others around the world fail to understand that climate change is an economic issue.

During the campaign Conservatives pledged to protect the environment and Green Belt in the planning system. The Green Belt is the ribbon of land around towns and cities to prevent urban sprawl. It has been under increased pressure because of demand for new homes. The most under threat area of Green Belt land was found to be the Home Counties around London where the number of new homes planned on Green Belt land has nearly tripled since August 2013.

A Conservative manifesto committed the Conservatives to "prioritise brownfield development." It said: "We will ensure that local people have more control over planning and protect the Green Belt. We will encourage more neighborhood planning and protect the Green Belt." The manifesto highlighted the 1,400 communities, representing six million people, who have applied to draw up the plans to set out where development can take place.

While Cameron declared that the "Green Belt is safe for another five years under a Conservative government," this statement is contradicted by a recent study. The study by the Campaign to Protect Rural England showed that tens of thousands of new homes are planned for Green Belt land despite the National Planning Policy Framework that was introduced under Cameron in March 2012. The CPRE’s report, "Green Belt under siege: the NPPF three years on", finds that over 219,000 houses are planned for England’s Green Belt, 60,000 more than CPRE’s last count in August 2013.

After the Conservatives virtually eliminated any elements of green policy in 2014, there was not much in the way of environmental promises this election cycle. The Conservatives pledged to spend around £3bn between now and 2020 to improve the environment. They have also promised to invest £500m over the next 5 years to achieve their goal of zero emission vehicles by 2050.

One of the most environmentally egregious campaign promises involved the phasing out of subsidies for new onshore wind farms. This is at odds with the great strides the UK has made in wind energy and the platform of the SNP that swept Scotland by winning more than 50 seats.

The SNP victory is significant because of Scotland's recent referendum and because it marks the ongoing trend of devolution of powers (the transfer of some powers from central to regional bases). The SNP's victory in the north underscores the UK government's limited power to make laws across the land. Many functions have already been passed to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which have their own elected bodies. Scotland already has separate education and legal systems.

In 1997 the devolution process gained momentum with referendums in Scotland and Wales, and one year later both parts of Ireland. These referendums led to the creation of the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales and the Northern Ireland Assembly. Control over environmental issues is one of the main powers given to the Northern Irish and Welsh assemblies, and the Scottish Parliament.These three bodies offer a counterpoint to the Conservative policy agenda on energy, climate and the environment.

The National Assembly of Wales has been actively pursuing the transition to low carbon power generation as part of what they call "Energy Smart Wales." They have been studying German renewable energy leadership. In April 2015, the Assembly’s Environment and Sustainability Committee visited the German state of Baden-Wurrtemberg to find out how towns, cities and small communities are taking action to increase renewable energy and energy efficiency.

The Northern Ireland Assembly is committed to becoming an "exemplar organization in respect of Sustainable Development." They reduce and manage their environmental impacts through their Environmental Management Systems (EMS) to the ISO 14001:2004 International Standard. This includes environmental performance targets for waste, paper usage, energy emissions and sustainable travel.

The Scottish Parliament also has assumed a progressive position on a range of issues including climate change, biodiversity, wild fisheries and agriculture. The Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body (SPCB) is committed to being a role model for best practice in environmental performance and to acting sustainably. They are committed to ongoing environmental performance improvement and to protecting the environment by reducing pollution and resource consumption, and by supporting and encouraging biodiversity. They are committed to carbon reduction, climate adaptation, energy, water and resource efficiency, renewables, waste reduction, recycling, environmentally responsible procurement, and sustainable travel.

The SNP sweep is significant as their key environment and climate campaign positions included the expansion of Scotland's ambitious carbon reduction targets to all of the UK and a dedicated climate justice fund. They also want the Energy Company Obligation to be funded through taxation and not as a levy on energy bills. Perhaps most importantly, they want to maximize the government's support and investment in offshore wind.

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